by Sabine Rhyne
Passion and humor are essential qualities for starting a business. Tom and Nancy Cain have plenty of both when they talk about the genesis of their business, Against The Grain. As businesses go, it’s a meteoric rise: recently, they were recognized as the 25th-fastest-growing company in the food industry by Inc. magazine, 1,007th fastest of all companies nationally. Normally, one might expect a company with numbers like this to be fueled by venture capital, with manufacturing facilities all over the country (or outside the country), but Against The Grain is a Brattleboro company in every sense of the word, and built without venture capital.
You may know the story: Tom and Nancy had a 14-year-old son who was diagnosed with celiac disease, a diagnosis that Tom had also received, and Nancy decided that the family would shift its diet to a gluten-free one, so that they could make one meal at a time and ultimately all eat together. With two teenagers, life without pizza and bread looked bleak indeed, and Nancy set about experimenting with dough that would bake up into something appetizing and wholesome, using ingredients that most kitchens would have available. They tell the story of their son’s 16th birthday, when he asked for pizza, and she prepared a pizza dough. This was the first occasion that they had “outside” company, so when she entered the kitchen and smelled a delicious smell, she called in her guest to see the promising pie, and then, lo and behold, it was good! The leftover dough, with a few additional machinations, became bread, which was also delicious, and the idea of providing delicious food to celiac-disease sufferers was born. As she got more good results, they discussed the idea of a cookbook, but Tom thought most folks would prefer to buy something ready-made. So convenient, high quality delicious food that happened to be gluten free became their cause.
In the seven years since this discovery, the industry has adopted gluten free as the latest hot item. Where once most of the gluten-free producers were celiac family owned, now the only national gluten-free bread company that is reportedly not owned by multinational corporations or fueled by venture capital is Against The Grain.
In 2005, Nancy and Tom met with then-BDCC director Kurt Isaacson, and became the second tenant in the old Book Press building in North Brattleboro. They applied to the first BDCC business plan competition, and lost to an existing business. Still, they impressed the local business community, and soon met with UNFI to explore possibilities of distribution. One person, after tasting their products, said, “This is going to be big.” Another questioned their
naïveté and privately referred to their company as “against my better judgment.” Tom and Nancy worked and worked on the product, the facility, the hiring of local talent, the distribution. “But it never occurred to us to get customers,” laughed Nancy. Soon, Tom converted their SUV into a sort of ice-cream truck, and hit the road. “We had almost a 100% ‘hit rate’,” they said. All the co-ops and natural food stores picked up the product. Those co-ops’ customers who had been diagnosed knew to go to their trusted market to get advice about what to eat, what was good, and before they knew it, Against The Grain was off and running. It is now poised to expand yet again, making it the largest tenant at Browne Court.
We all think we know what makes a local producer. But think about the ripple effect: Tom and Nancy wanted to get local producers to supply their own ingredients, wherever possible. Consequently, they use Maple Meadow eggs and McNamara Dairy’s milk. They wanted to provide good job opportunities for local folks. So, their 24 employees all have access to health insurance, get overtime pay, vacations, and stay with the company for a long time. The BFC feature photo from 2008 shows folks who are all still working there, save one who moved to the mid-Atlantic area.
“No matter what, in the end, the stuff has to taste good. I eat this!” said Tom. “We only want to make a quality product, with no fillers. This is a baguette or a pizza that you could make from stuff in your own kitchen.” And that’s good, because some things do indeed come around: Nancy just signed a contract with Clarkson Potter to write that cookbook.